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The Voice

The Voice

It’s funny how the mind works. That’s especially true, I find, when you try to turn it on a dime from creative mode—open, flowing, unfocused, nearly devoid of intrusive consciousness—to analytical mode—hyper-conscious, capturing every bit of external data, putting it under a microscope and trying to see it from all angles at once.

A couple of weeks back, I sat down at the computer thinking I was going to write about the books that helped to shape Believe in Me (Wampus, Nov. 29). What came out was a post about the books and writers whose work I used for research—as I put it, the perspiration rather than the inspiration part of the process. Left-brain rational instead of right-brain intuitive.

The right brain is now back in charge and demanding equal time: what about the writers whose work influenced the narrative voice of Believe in Me—and, not incidentally, made me want to write a novel in the first place?

Alrighty then.

The first two names on the list may come as a surprise, inasmuch as Robert B. Parker and Robert Crais are mystery/thriller writers, and Believe in Me is neither a mystery nor a thriller. In many ways, though, I feel as if these two gentlemen taught me how to write, or at least taught me how to love doing it. Despite the two being a generation apart in age, they and their books have a tremendous amount in common: chiefly, their lead characters have a strong moral center and strong sense of self. The harder it becomes to do the right thing, the greater their effort will be to do it. Loyalty and justice are their highest values. When you say the word “hero” to me, I think of Parker’s Spenser, or Crais’ Elvis Cole.

In terms of pure technique, Parker’s dialogue is simply peerless. Anywhere in Believe in Me where you find a long stretch of conversation, largely unadorned with adverbs or other extraneous decoration, that is Parker’s voice in my head. In the world of fiction there was simply no one better than Parker at writing dialogue that is snappy and layered and real enough to carry a scene, revealing (and shading) the necessary information in a manner that seems effortless, but is anything but. He made a career of employing this special kind of genius, and his books are like chocolate to me—there is never a time I don’t crave that sweet, familiar smoothness.

Crais has some of Parker’s ear for crisp, revealing dialogue, but relies less on it to explore the rich interior lives of his characters. His Elvis Cole and Joe Pike are more deeply damaged souls than the nearly impervious Spenser, though they operate by a similar moral code. What Crais accomplishes so well is to imbue his characters with a powerful three-dimensionality, making the stakes in their stories feel like they extend far beyond rescuing person A or figuring out who killed person B. Cole and Pike are driven by a deep-seated need to achieve redemption and some sort of (often self-defined) justice. I hear that, and it echoes through the halls of the arenas and hotels inhabited by the characters in Believe in Me.

And then there’s Nick Hornby.

If you can write a story involving popular music in the 21st century without in some way referencing Nick Hornby, then my hat’s off to you, you’ve accomplished some sort of low-grade miracle—but I probably don’t want to read your book. Hornby, author of About a Boy, High Fidelity, and Juliet, Naked, among other popular-music-infused narratives, as well as the simply brilliant non-fiction compendium Songbook, writes about how music infiltrates the consciousness and becomes part of the fabric of our lives more effectively and evocatively than anyone living or dead. That feat alone would be enough to put him on this list, but he manages to do so while displaying such rich insight into and compassion for the failings and foibles of his deeply flawed characters that you just want to take them all home and offer them a warm cup of soup and a soft couch to lie on.

Scott Turow. Another writer of thrillers, in another arena with which I have only passing familiarity (the law). The thing is, if you ask me (and you sort of did by reading this), Turow is one of this country’s finest living novelists. His stories are so richly observant of human behavior, so elegantly written—yet compellingly plotted—that I’m frankly intimidated just trying to describe them adequately. And Innocent, his 20-years-later revisiting of several of the characters first observed in his smashing 1987 debut Presumed Innocent, might just be the best thriller sequel in the entire history of them.

Finally, I have to mention a writer who’s not a novelist at all, but whose writing is a joy every time I hear it performed. Aaron Sorkin has written several of the most notable television and movie scripts of the past 20 years, from A Few Good Men and The Social Network to Sports Night and The West Wing. His dialogue sings; in a medium where the default tendency is to dumb things down to the lowest common denominator, Sorkin revels in his characters’ crackling intelligence. Of all the writers named here, he is the only one whose work directly inspired one of the characters in Believe in Me (nope, not telling which one… but it’s a supporting character, and the name is a clue).

There are more, of course, but in the interest of space—and your patience—here’s an abbreviated take on a quartet of other writers whose work I have especially enjoyed over the years:

Michael Chabon, not so much for the fiction, which I often find both brilliant and uneven, but for his stunningly perceptive and beautifully written essay collection Manhood For Amateurs, one of my favorite reads so far this century.

Stephen King, for pure narrative drive and for daring to care about his own characters.

Elmore Leonard, for his economy of language, deftness of plotting, and wicked wit.

— And finally Anne Lamott, for her inspirational masterpiece Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, and for her courage and unflinching honesty in exploring one difficult topic after another.

These are the biggies, the writers who camped out on my shoulder and spoke in my ear as I tried to put the pieces of my own story together and make them not just speak, but sing. To whatever extent I succeeded, I couldn’t have done it without them.

Comments (2)

  • paddyro

    Great summing up of Parker's style. You put into words what I envy about Spencer and Jesse Stone. Shame he died last year but I believe his screen co writer may cotinue the series .

    • Jason Warburg

      Yes, Michael Brandman, who wrote several of the scripts for the Jesse Stone TV movies, is continuing Parker's Stone series in print. It has also been announced that Ace Atkins will be taking over the Spenser franchise, with the first of his books (Lullaby) due out next May. No word yet on the Westerns (Cole and Hitch) or Sunny Randall.

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